Consciousness refers to the subjective experience of oneself and one’s environment. This experience includes the awareness of one’s feelings and emotions and the awareness of, and perceived control over, one’s thoughts and behaviors. Conscious processes stand in contrast to subconscious (or nonconscious) processes, which occur outside of awareness and without intentional control.
Consciousness Background and History
Consciousness is the familiar lens through which humans view their day-to-day worlds, yet no concept has proven more difficult for people to explain or understand. How do thoughts arise? How does subjective experience relate to, or come out of, physical processes in the brain? Such questions are often referred to as the hard problem of consciousness. It is these questions that challenged thinkers like Rene Descartes many centuries ago (he suggested that the mind is of a nonphysical substance separate from the brain), and it is these same issues that continue to puzzle countless scientists and philosophers in the present day. In contrast, psychologists and other academics have been slightly more successful in addressing the so-called easy problem of consciousness, which refers to questions of how cognitive processes influence behavior and how people react to their subjective experiences. With regard to consciousness, these are the questions that social psychologists are most concerned with today.
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Early ideas about the easy problem of consciousness were somewhat scattered in the field of psychology as not all psychologists found conscious processes to be an important phenomenon. Sigmund Freud was famous for addressing the easy problem of consciousness by proposing the conscious ego and superego as functioning separately from the unconscious id, which he described as a reservoir of instincts and desires. However, despite the early emphasis by Freud and others like him on the interaction between conscious and unconscious sections of the mind, a full understanding of conscious processes was delayed by scientists like B. F. Skinner, who emphasized the utilization of observable behavior in the study of psychology. For decades, psychology was dominated by a view of the mind as a black box that receives input and exhibits output but whose contents are irrelevant to scientific study.
Debating the Utility of Consciousness
When social psychologists started to focus more and more on thought processes in the latter decades of the 20th century, many of their surprising findings pointed to a conscious system rife with flaws and inaccuracies. Researchers demonstrated that people are unable through introspection to accurately describe the causation behind their judgments, decisions, and behaviors. In addition, people often misattribute the driving forces behind their current emotions, and in some cases, they mislabel their emotions altogether. Recent research on consciousness has demonstrated that conscious thought can actually be a hindrance to decision-making processes, and furthermore, people have been found to misperceive whether their actions did or did not occur under their conscious control. Together, these results paint consciousness as a poor tool for doing the one thing that everyday experience would suggest it does well, which is provide an individual with the awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In response to these findings, many psychologists have questioned exactly what function consciousness serves.
Research on automatic behaviors has added to the confusion over the utility of consciousness. Social psychologists continue to accrue evidence that most human behaviors can be explained by automatic, non-conscious processes. Social psychologists have shown that people move, process information, and even engage in complex, goal-driven behaviors in automatic ways independent of conscious thought or conscious awareness. Such findings have caused many of today’s thinkers to propose that consciousness may in fact be a functionless side effect of other processes in the brain.
Despite the flaws inherent to conscious processes, consciousness does play an important role in various lines of research in social psychology. Many researchers study the use of conscious control in overriding automatic thoughts, impulses, and behaviors. This work has led to a better understanding of self-regulatory processes in which impulsive desires can be suppressed in favor of delayed rewards and long-term goals. Similarly, conscious control has also been shown to allow for more desirable interpersonal behaviors as in the case of stereotype suppression. Stereotypes of others have been found to arise quite automatically in the brain when people encounter individuals of particular groups. However, these stereotypes can be consciously overridden in favor of more accurate, more acceptable, and less stereotypic types of responding. In addition, conscious processes are often credited with allowing humans the unique ability to integrate different types of information, think symbolically, and use logical reasoning. Thus, the research supporting the utility of consciousness is considerable, and trends suggest that it will continue to grow. Still, exactly what consciousness is or isn’t useful for is a very much debated topic in social psychology today.
Dual Processes in Consciousness
An understanding of conscious processes has benefited from the commonly held view of the mind as containing two primary components, an idea referred to as the duplex mind. This idea holds that one of the mind’s components, the automatic system, is marked by fast, efficient, and uncontrolled processing that typically occurs outside of awareness. The second component, the conscious system, is marked by slow, effortful, rule-based processing that typically occupies the contents of awareness. Dual process models of social psychological phenomena take into account how the two components of the duplex mind interact to create thoughts and behavior. These models generally describe the automatic system as doing the bulk of the work, processing large amounts of information, and allowing for quick, automatic, and habitual responding. The conscious system monitors the output of the automatic system, integrates important bits of information, and overrides or changes the output of the automatic system when necessary. The automatic system is what allows a person to drive home while talking on the phone or thinking about other plans; the conscious system is what kicks in when the driver has to pull over for an ambulance or break for an unexpected pedestrian.
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